The moment that consumed four lives on Route 50 in Maryland this year had all the elements of a nightmare: the roar of metal ripped by enormous force, an explosion of flames, the agony of the dying and the deep darkness of an hour between midnight and dawn.
A head-on, high-speed collision that caused veteran state troopers to grimace, it typified the mayhem that federal safety officials sought to understand and address on Tuesday.
They call them wrong-way crashes, the culmination of those crazy mistakes that send one vehicle barreling against the flow of highway traffic until it hits another car, usually at a combined speed well over 100 mph.
Sometimes old age causes the confusion that leads to the mistake, but new research by the National Transportation Safety Board lays the blame for most of the collisions at a familiar doorstep: too much alcohol.
Booze was a factor in more than 60 percent of the 1,566 wrong-way collisions that killed 2,139 people over a six-year period, the agency’s staff concluded in a report it presented to the NTSB on Tuesday.
“Wrong-way accidents are among the most deadly type of motor vehicle accidents,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman, because they occur at high speed on limited access highways, often in the dark or in fog, snow or rain. “These deaths occur in ones and twos and threes, but at the end of the day, they add up.”
The NTSB report cited earlier research that showed fatality rates for wrong-way crashes in California were 12 times higher than for other accidents. In Michigan, 22 percent of wrong-way collisions resulted in a death, compared with a 0.3 percent fatality rate in all other highway accidents.
The board, an investigative and advisory agency without the authority to make policy, issued more than a dozen recommendations to state and federal rulemakers seeking to address the wrong-way issue. They included suggestions for better highway designs, more road signs, flashing “wrong way” signs on exit ramps and better guidelines for older drivers.
It also recommended mandating use of ignition interlocks for first-time drunken driving convictions and rapid development of factory-installed passive detection systems that would shut down a vehicle if the driver is drunk. And the NTSB suggested that manufacturers could include “wrong-way” alerts in GPS devices. Direct communication between on-board computers — technology commonly known as connected-cars — also may provide a big step in preventing the crashes, the NTSB said.
The NTSB report said that in most wrong-way crashes involving alcohol — including seven of nine cases they scrutinized because of their high fatality count — the confused driver had consumed more than twice the legal limit of alcohol.
When police get an emergency call about someone driving against the flow of traffic, there isn’t much they can do, said Donald Karol, an NTSB staff member and former accident investigator for the California Highway Patrol.
“The options for law enforcement when they get a wrong-way call are very limited and very dangerous,” Karol said. The officer can drive toward the on-rushing car with emergency lights flashing, hoping to get the driver’s attention. An alternative is cutting the flow of traffic headed toward the driver, and “ramming is an option.”
There were warnings but few options in the early hours of a Saturday morning when the 911 calls began in Anne Arundel County last January.
A Chrysler Sebring was speeding south in the northbound lanes of Interstate 97, a multi-lane highway that connects Baltimore with Route 50 between Annapolis and Washington.
“He is heading toward Route 50. If he gets that far there is going to be a problem,” a caller told the operator just before 3:30 a.m.
Another caller, The Annapolis Capital reported, told 911, “I don’t think they have a clue they are on the wrong side of the road.”
A 19-year-old, Brittany Ann Walker, was driving her grandfather’s Sebring. Police later would say she had been drinking and that marijuana was found in the car.
“I just don’t want him to hit somebody,” a caller told 911. “I hope you get him and everyone is okay.”
With two passengers, Breanna Marie Franco, 18, and Zachary Tyler Rose, 18, Walker drove for miles in the wrong direction, somehow making her way onto westbound Route 50.
Once again, she was driving in the wrong direction.
Terry Davis, 55, was headed in the right direction at the wrong time. Heading home from a late dinner with a friend in Alexandria, his black BMW convertible was the last of at least a dozen vehicles to encounter the Sebring.
One of the cars caught fire after they collided on a particularly dark stretch of highway just east of the Davidsonville Road exit. The three teenagers died, pinned in their car. Davis died on his way to the hospital.